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Cat owner turns to DNA in pet whodunit

A Virginia woman's cat was killed in August outside her home. She suspected a neighbor's dog and had DNA evidence tested to try to prove he was the attacker.
Marylin Christian with one of her cats, Yo Mama, at her farm in Lovettsville, Va.
Marylin Christian with one of her cats, Yo Mama, at her farm in Lovettsville, Va.Jahi Chikwendiu / TWP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Marylin Christian found Cody under the tree in front of their Loudoun County home, his white fur covered in saliva. She scooped up the lifeless remains of the cat whose friendship she had counted on for 13 years and sat under the tree, sobbing, for two hours.

The next day, Christian set out to discover what, or who, had killed Cody -- no matter what.

When a veterinarian said the culprit had to be a dog, she canvassed her rural Lovettsville neighborhood in search of a suspect. After she spotted a bouncy 4-year-old German shepherd mix named Lucky, she asked authorities to declare him dangerous. And when Loudoun animal control officials dropped the case, she took a cue from television's legal dramas: She hired a California DNA laboratory to analyze evidence -- dog saliva and fur -- that ultimately linked Lucky to the incident.

Yet despite the strong forensic evidence -- and a five-month saga that has tested the fragility of neighborly relations and pitted motherly instincts against carnivorous ones -- Lucky remains free.

County officials say they need an eyewitness to make a case.

"All I want is to protect my family," Christian, 35, said as she sat in her family room with her infant son, Denison, and Yo Mama, one of her four remaining cats. "I'm trying to get my neighbor held responsible for a dangerous dog that they let roam in the neighborhood."

Christian said that since Cody was killed, she has repeatedly asked Lucky's owners, Sean and Janet Daryabeygi, to return the dog to the local animal shelter, where they adopted him in the summer. The Daryabeygis think she is asking too much. They said Lucky would never harm a human, though they do not dispute that he could have been a cat killer.

"He probably did it. We don't know that. Nobody saw it. It's the nature of the dog -- chasing cats, squirrels and small animals," said Sean Daryabeygi, 62, a Metro engineer who lives in a cabinlike home across an unpaved road from Christian. His neighbor, he said, "is obsessed with something natural."

Christian and her husband, Eric, moved from Herndon to their five-acre farm a year ago, in part so their animals could roam free. Cody and the other cats spent a few hours outside a day, and Christian said she kept a watchful eye on them. But Aug. 19, the Christians, hurrying for a dinner engagement, did not herd the cats inside before leaving.

Tan hair at scene
When they got home, Eric Christian, 39, discovered Cody's body. The next morning, the Christians spied tan hair around the scene. Anguished and wanting to know the cause of death, they put Cody in a box and went to Blue Ridge Veterinary Associates in Purcellville for a necropsy.

In a letter provided to the county, Ross W. Peterson, the veterinarian, concluded that the cat's punctured lungs, broken ribs and frayed claws indicated that he had been pulled off the tree by a larger creature and "fought back intensely prior to his death." Christian said the veterinarian told her a dog must have done it.

She then went door-to-door. Eventually, she and her husband approached the Daryabeygis, who had recently moved in.

"We thought she was welcoming us" to the neighborhood, said Janet Daryabeygi, 53.

Christian was, sort of. But she was on a mission. "We knocked on their door and said, 'I'm sorry that we're having to meet under these circumstances, but we wanted to let you know that our cat was killed . . . and, by the way, can we meet your dog?' "

Out came Lucky, whom Sean Daryabeygi chose because he grew up with German shepherds in his native Iran. Christian took one look at Lucky's blondish coat and saw a killer.

"We sort of knew because of the fur," Christian said. She asked Peterson to compare the fur Lucky had shed on her hands that night with that found by the tree. He concluded both samples came from the same dog.

Still, authorities said nothing could be done. No one had seen Lucky do it.

Then the veterinarian suggested DNA analysis. Christian said she asked animal control officials about it, and they acted as though she had been "watching a little bit too much 'CSI.' " Christian, undeterred, found a lab in California that would do it for $500. There was one hitch: She needed some of Lucky's slobber.

The Daryabeygis consented when Peterson and Eric Christian came to collect biological samples.

"We didn't have anything to hide," Sean Daryabeygi said, sitting with his wife on a recent evening on their white sofa while Lucky pressed his brown nose against a nearby glass door.

Peterson sent the evidence -- which included foreign hair found in Cody's mouth and claws, and a saliva sample from Lucky -- to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California at Davis. The lab, believed to have the largest animal DNA database in the world, opened a forensic branch in 1999 to help authorities solve crimes. Scientists there have analyzed pet DNA evidence submitted by law enforcement agencies from Arizona to Scotland Yard. Its work has helped convict an Indiana triple-murderer through dog feces smeared on his shoe and has reunited farmers with rustled cattle.

But about half of the lab's clients are distraught pet owners, many of whom want to know whether a carcass on the road is their missing dog -- and some who want to implicate a neighbor's animal in misbehavior, said Beth Wictum, the forensic lab's interim director.

"A lot of time the local animal control or sheriff won't act unless they have something conclusive to go on," she said. "We provide them with the material."

One in 67 million
Comparing the DNA of the hair in Cody's mouth and claws with Lucky's DNA, the lab found that it was almost certainly a match. The odds against it? One in 67 million.

Christian submitted the evidence to animal control officials, who consulted county attorneys. Shortly after Christmas, Thomas Koenig, Loudoun's animal care and control director, told her the county would not attempt to declare Lucky dangerous, a legal term that requires the owner to, among other things, carry liability insurance of at least $50,000, keep the dog in a locked enclosure at home and muzzle it during walks.

In an interview, Koenig said he sympathized with Christian but said the county must act with the law and practicality in mind. He said it is likely the DNA evidence -- because it was not collected by officials -- might not be admitted into court, and county attorneys could find no precedent. And without an eyewitness, there's not much to go on.

"There's nothing we can prove," he said. He said animal control officers inspected the Daryabeygis' home and offered advice on dog care. About 10 days after Cody's death, Lucky was found running loose, and Sean Daryabeygi was fined $116. Koenig said there have been no issues since. "We cannot overenforce," he said.

For now, Christian is mulling the possibility of privately prosecuting the case -- a rarely used option, according to Loudoun Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman. And she is lamenting the loss of a sense of freedom in the countryside. Her four cats have not been outside since Cody's death, she said, and she does not think she will ever let her son outside alone as long as Lucky is around.

The Daryabeygis, for their part, said they are saddened that it has come to this. After Cody's death, they gave a typed condolence letter to the Christians. Christian wrote them a letter, too, recounting that Cody sometimes tried to brighten her mood by offering her a dead mouse. To the Daryabeygis, that anecdote simply reinforced their view of the natural world: Cats kill mice. Dogs kill cats.

Lucky, meanwhile, romps obliviously around the back yard, now a more secure space.

"He is very happy here," Sean Daryabeygi said.